Jackie Shannon Hollis’s debut book, a memoir, braids together a variety of stories and timelines to tell a holistic tale about its author’s choice not to have children. It would have been easy to write this book as a polemic; choosing not to have children is an extremely contentious topic. However, Hollis did not come to her decision about having children without doubt and soul-searching. People on both sides of the choice tried to tell her what she should want. This Particular Happiness is an extraordinary memoir for this reason, for its careful dissection of the full context of Hollis’s life choices. Additionally, its big-picture craft—the way it juxtaposes its ideas, the way it structures its multiple narrative arcs—greatly impresses.
In alternating chapters, Hollis unfolds the story of her youth and early adulthood beside the story of a major crisis about her childfree lifestyle years later. Both stories are about seeking fulfillment. In her young life, Hollis sought fulfillment from men. She tells achingly vulnerable stories about her alcoholic father, about begging men for their love and commitment, about a violent assault with consequences that went unaddressed for longer than she expected. “Knowing where your scars come from doesn’t make them go away,” she points out. After she has settled into a beautiful, healthy marriage with her second husband, Bill, she seeks fulfillment from having a child, which Bill is unwilling to do.
The desire Hollis has for a baby is an urge she can’t satisfy by thinking through it: “This was not rational. I couldn’t control it. It felt like a grieving. Only no one had died, nothing was lost. Grief for what wasn’t. The craving in my gut. Lower. Higher. My womb. My heart.” She asks Bill to change his mind in countless ways, but he holds firm: he does not want kids. She tries to find out why, and in doing so, she learns more about him. Some short chapters show vignettes from Bill’s childhood as well—an unusual choice, but a smart one. That Bill doesn’t want children should be an answer in itself, but for Hollis, it isn’t. “The woman of my body pushed against logic.” She must understand him better, and in understanding him, she falls even more deeply in love with him and with their childless life together.
Alternating between these two timelines shouldn’t work as well as it does. She’s writing two different kinds of memoir here: one in which she’s looking back on a fairly long span of time and events, between childhood and the end of her twenties, and one in which she’s recounting a repetitive, internal, by-the-hour struggle. That’s a major challenge for a debut writer, but Hollis makes it look natural. In fact, the alternation adds tension to both narrative lines, and makes This Particular Happiness a difficult book to leave off reading.
Adding to the authorial challenge of this book is that, especially toward the end, it becomes a memoir of a marriage more than a memoir of a person or a crisis. Hollis reveals more nooks and crannies of her marriage than, for instance, Rick Moody’s recent The Long Accomplishment, which was subtitled A Memoir of Hope and Struggle in Matrimony, but was more significantly about fertility than matrimony. Hollis’s relationship with Bill is spellbinding, because they seem perfectly matched to each other, both in flaws and in strengths. They both grow significantly over time, loving each other and learning from each other. That’s a beautiful, heartening journey to read about, particularly since Hollis, as she outlines, has struggled mightily with maintaining a sense of herself while in love.
Ultimately, Hollis’s intense yearning for a baby passes, and she moves on to find fulfillment through all the other activities and kinds of love available to her: “Like an old habit, I kept reaching for the longing. But it wasn’t there.” She and Bill participate enthusiastically in the lives of the children around them, and they explore the world through travel. The book maintains a sense of itself through Hollis’s surprisingly oral style and her obvious intention to leave nothing out. She writes unflattering things about herself and her husband, but they are wholly understandable because of the lifetime of context she has written about. She has performed that minor miracle of making real human beings breathe on the page.
Art imitates life, and This Particular Happiness isn’t a book with easy answers about the choice to have children. That’s part of why it’s so necessary. Reading along as a woman grapples with the decision, rather than assuming that “having children was what women did,” will help readers on both sides of the choice understand what the other goes through to reach fulfillment.
This Particular Happiness: A Childless Love Story, by Jackie Shannon Hollis. Portland, Oregon: Forest Avenue Press, October 2019. 294 pages. $16.95, paper.
Katharine Coldiron’s work has appeared in Ms., The Washington Post, The Times Literary Supplement, Los Angeles Review of Books, The Rumpus, and many other places. Her novella, Ceremonials, is forthcoming from KERNPUNKT Press in 2020. Find her at kcoldiron.com and on Twitter @ferrifrigida.